- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 5, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Nothing brings people together on a regular basis like sports.

Whether it’s 5,000 residents applauding a high school football team, 23,000 fans rooting for the Kentucky Wildcats, or 49,000 New Yorkers cheering for the Yankees, ballgames have a special place in our culture.

But sports’ place in public schools is less secure than in years past. Though fine arts education — the main competition for “extra” resources — has a more tenuous grip, sports are feeling the effect of budget cutters, too.

How do we balance one against the other? How do we acknowledge the benefits of athletic competition and support their pursuit, while simultaneously doing likewise for music and art?

Academic needs are a given; reading, math and science aren’t going anywhere. It’s the funding of extracurriculars such as football and band that creates such contention.

According to Up2Us Sports, $3.5 billion was cut from schools’ sports budgets from 2009 to 2011. The organization estimates that 27 percent of U.S. public high schools in 2020 will offer no sports programs whatsoever.

That’s not a problem in certain neighborhoods and income brackets, demographic groups that easily absorb sports fees. Up2Us says 60 percent of children who play have to pay a fee, which disproportionately affects those from low-income families.

Forget about sports as a route to pro careers. That’s a one-in-a-million situation. More important is the way sports can help youth stay in school, improve their grades, work as a team and learn conflict resolution. That way, it can help them make better choices than some of their at-risk peers who don’t participate in athletics.

The U.S. Department of Education found that high school athletes are absent from class 50 percent less and are four times more likely to attend college than their non-playing counterparts. “It isn’t a sports program,” Karl-Anthony Towns, the top pick in the NBA draft in June, said during a recent panel discussion, according to HuffPost. “It’s an intervention program.”

The panel was sponsored by Dick’s Sporting Goods, which, last year, launched its Sports Matter initiative, a $25 million, multi-year commitment to help fund at-risk youth sports program. Among the panelists with Towns was New York Jets receiver Brandon Marshall, who apparently thought hyperbole was in order to warn us about decreases in sports programs.

“It’s almost like a civil rights movement,” Marshall said. “Millions of kids are going to be stripped away of their only opportunity of having a healthy, effective life.”

Unfortunately, that mindset is part of the problem, the over-selling, over-emphasizing and over-hyping that becomes a turnoff to non-fans and supporters of other non-academic pursuits.

Music teachers point out their students’ development of critical and creative thinking. A University of Kansas study found that elementary schools with superior music education programs scored 22 percent higher in English and 20 percent higher in math on standardized tests, compared to schools with low-quality music programs.

Art teachers can boast about the analytical thinking skills that arise from creating art and visiting museums to observe art. Theater teachers can note the memory and verbal skills required, as well as the appreciation for different viewpoints through role playing. Research by the National Endowment for the Arts found that at-risk youth with access to the arts have better academic results, better workforce opportunities and more civic engagement.

“Arts education doesn’t take place in isolation,” former NEA chairman Rocco Landesman said when the study was released. “It has to take place as part of an overall school and education reform strategy. This report shows that arts education has strong links with other positive educational outcomes.”

The same is true of sports programs — as long as overall education isn’t lost in the process. Contrary to Marshall’s assertion, knowledge — not sports — is the only opportunity for most youths to have a healthy, effective life.
Athletics can be a means, but aren’t the end.

In a perfect world, our public schools have rigorous academics, robust sports programs and vibrant arts education — something for everyone. That’s especially important in areas beset with the affects of poverty, where going to class can be a struggle for many reasons. But with an assist from activities that boost performance and confidence, it’s easier to get them there and keep them there.

Sports have an advantage in their ability to regularly draw people to stadiums, arenas and TV sets, at times creating memories that last forever.

But fans must remember — and drill it into young people — that sports is just part of the equation. Other avenues must be supported and explored as well in order to have a full education.

After all, music and teams logos are part of the sports experience, too.


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